Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Banana Plants Part 2

My first article on this was more on what the plant is.  Now that I have been at it for almost two years, I have discovered interesting things about this plant.  This plant is one of the most useful plants - almost all its components can be used for one purpose or another as well as being an interesting edible landscape addition.  I am a proponent for natural, organic farming so no chemical pesticides or fertilizers are used on the farm.  I find that going this route does not detract from the quality and quantity of the bananas produced and has the added dimension of being  a healthier food option.

Unripen Pisang Berangan

Of course we all know that the fruit can be eaten in various ways, depending on the varieties and personal preference.  There is no reason why pisang awak cannot be eaten raw though it is more commonly found as pisang goreng or in cooked form.  The dishes that can be prepared with bananas are not limited to sweet forms but also as savoury dishes such as in curries and as savoury banana chips.  By going organic, I find that it doesn't detract from the quality of the bananas albeit it does require a bit more work.  However, the results speak for itself.
The leaves are great environmentally-friendly food wrappers and liners.  It can be used to wrap rice to make lontong, etc.  I personally use it to wrap the vegetable produce for transport to market.  To discard it after it has served it purpose, it can be added to the compost pile and transformed to fertilizer.  While the plant is growing, I cut off the older leaves to create a cooling ground cover at the base of the plant which also acts to increase the organic content of the soil as it decomposes.  With its big leaves, they serve as great sunshades and create a cooling resting place under the tree especially when I need to take a rest from the hot sun.

Almost mature banana,
a few more days to go

In case you are wondering how to figure out when a banana is mature or ripe, especially the green-skin varieties, check out how many leaves are remaining on the plant.  As the banana matures, the leaves will begin to turn yellow to brown and finally drop off.  When there is 3-4 leaves, this indicates that the banana is mature.  In my continuing battle with the birds, this is when I will chop the plant and store them hanging in the house.  Depending on your personal preference, the bananas will be ready to eat in a few days.  With variety that ripens with its skin turning yellow, I always enjoy watching the progress and marvel at it.  One of these days, I aim to photograph the change process.
Now on to the stem and its many uses.  Traditionally, the inner part of the stem has been used to create a tasty curry, a recipe common in Kedah, especially for kenduri in the villages.  I have cooked this dish when I have invited lots of people over for a meal at the farm which I also add pieces of salted dried fish.  Apart from being people-food, it makes a great nutritious food item for my fresh water fish.  In support of being environmentally-friendly, I tear-off strips of the outer layer and turn them into ties which I use to tie around my banana leaf wrapped produce for market and also as plant ties.  No need to worry about recycling. 
The stems also make for a great fertilizer as well as increasing the organic content of the soil.  I chop them up and place them around the base of my banana plant, which also helps to maintain the water content in the soil - an important factor for these plants.  It also helps me keep the farm more eye-pleasing.
I am continuously learning about this plant and its varieties and I am still on my quest for pisang tanduk plant to add to my collection :)

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Being a farmer - Challenges and Joys

After commenting on Facebook on a comment about a nation's ability to produce enough food for its people, I realized how dear at heart this topic is to me.  A few years ago, I made the commitment to develop a farm.  I faced many challenges - among them, battling people's perception of my abilities and commitment as well as some viewing that my venturing into farming is a waste of my skills.  Since I was small, I have always had a dream of one day owning my own farm - producing great quality food produce.  Albeit, growing up, farming was considered something that was done by people who do not have the ability or opportunity to further their education hence the perception that farmers are low-educated people, I still nurtured the dream of one day having my farm and being hands-on - not a "gentleman farmer".
I have learnt many lessons and gained an immense amount of knowledge and experience in developing my farm.  To the faint-hearted, this adventure is not for you.  It tests your patience, your endurance and your faith.  I approach the development as I would with any project - using project management techniques including having a project plan with resources and deliverables defined.
To start with, finding the right piece of land is key.  Many were surprised at the piece of land that I chose and considered that I paid too much for it but in the end, people began to understand.  I chose a land that was the last remaining jungle around other "kebun".  This land has a land grant dating to 1908 but in the last over 40 years, had not been worked.  It was last a paddy field but all traces of this was gone when I got it.  Tarzan would have a wonderful time on the land :).  Key things that I looked at which in the end made the land cheaper overall was the fact that it already had a tarred road access, electricity and ability to obtain clean, fresh water.  Sometimes when people buy a piece of land because it is cheap, they forget these 3 items.  The cost of having a road access to your land can run in the hundreds of thousands of ringgit, and sometime, it is just to have it built with gravel stones - no tar.  Hence a land bought at RM 40K per acre can in a blink of an eye become RM 140K per acre and you still do not have the electricity and water!  When some people realized this, they began to see that I am not stupid for paying more than RM 40K per acre for land that was a jungle because at the end of the day, it not only costs less but also speeded up the time of development.
What does someone from IT and Telco background know about farming?  Very little but that did not stop me.  Life is a continuous learning exercise so I started to learn.  I didn't go to a university or take any formal training.  What I did was to visit and learn from practitioners from all over the country.  There is a lot of knowledge that is not in books - they are a good reference but in reality, there are so many factors that can impact that is learnt through experience and not found in books.  I have to admit that I do have a collection of books covering a wide range of related topics.  They are mainly localized since after all, I am living in Malaysia and not England or U.S.A. or Australia.
Nothing beats taking the theory and knowledge and putting it into practice.  It is a never-ending discovery process.  What may work on another farm may not work on mine due to various reasons.  It is a continuous refinement process - making adjustments as I go along.  When things do not go as I expect, when my patience is tried, I take a deep breathe and refocus and deal with the challenge.  I do not view it as a failure but as an opportunity to learn and improve.  Farming is for the positive-minded, open to challenge people.
Being a Muslim, farming is also an opportunity to be a better Muslim.  Everyday I am amazed by Allah s.w.t. creations and power.  It makes me feel blessed that Allah s.w.t has given me this opportunity.  I am given the opportunity to produce affordable quality, pesticide-free, halal food, for myself, family, friends and customers.  It makes me appreciate life more and gives me an opportunity to serve my fellow Muslims.  Although I am not there yet, insyAllah, it will provide me with good income as well as activity as I grow older till the day that I die.
Farming requires passion.  You have to love farming as it has its ups and downs.  Farming requires commitment.  You have to be committed as it is not an 8-hour in-out job.  Farming requires faith.  You have to have faith as there will always be challenges.  Farming requires principles.  You have to have principles or you will not be able to do it right.  Farming requires brains.  You must use your brains to plan, address issues, learn and a whole other multitude of activities.  Thus, never under-estimate the farmer.
I studied the layout of the land, trying to preserve its good quality top soil, any plants or trees that are beneficial to humans and utilizing the natural stream-bed contour to create a fish pond.
My target for the farm was to be able to produce a complete meal with the exception of condiments such as salt and sugar.  In a way, should there ever be a need, the farm will be able to feed its people from what is produced.  No rice is planted so in dire circumstances, this will have to be replaced with cassava or tapioca (ubi kayu), just like during the Japanese Occupation.  Other than that, cooking oil can be produced from coconuts.  All the other elements are available - fish, vegetables and fruits.  As my approach is to go as natural as possible, should organic fertilizer not be available, I have my compost.  I practice crop rotation so as to to "kill" the soil.  The plants drink the rain water and when necessary fresh, clean, natural water. 
The fish are fed the fish pellets as supplement - there is tiny river shrimp, small fish and plants that they feast on so should the pellets become unavailable, the impact is very minimal.  My principle is to feed the fish what it would normally eat so chicken innards, human excrement and dead animals are a no-no.  The  other key element is clean water which I pipe from a natural, clean source.  These factors keep my pond from becoming a cess pool with a stinky odor.  Since I have the option to be selective, I only eat fresh water fish from my pond and it tastes great.  I refuse to eat store-bought fresh water fish as it tends to have a smell as well as a muddy taste.
Having a farm also enables me to indulge in my other interest, herbs for well-being.  I am constantly on the lookout for plants or trees to add to my collection.  I have started producing two types of teas: misai kucing tea and kemangi or lemon basil tea.  I regularly drink these two types of tea for health maintenance.
As a rule, I will taste-test all the produce from the farm before I sell them.  A maxim that I live by: You only "feed" other people what you would eat yourself.  It also gave me the opportunity to test out recipes cooked with herbs as condiments - learning the recipes that our ancestors used.
The cost of food is ever rising.  Our government continue to subsidize certain basic food items.  You will find more and more imported fruits and vegetables as well as other imported food produce in the markets and supermarkets - items that can be grown and produced in Malaysia but often costs less than Malaysian produce.  One wonders why?  My personal experience in getting my produce to the consumer direct at our version of the farmer's market exposed to me the bureaucratic barriers.  This alone can be a deterrent for the farmer in selling his produce direct to consumers.  I was fortunate to find a "friendly" location.  This gave me an opportunity to sell fresh produce direct from the farm thus making Friday and Saturday extremely busy days, preparing for the Sunday morning market.
For me, being able to come in direct contact with my customers was important.  It provided me with the ability to obtain uncensored feedback from customer, provide an insight to customer preferences as well as real people's buying strength.  This activity also gave me an insight to the ignorance of some Malaysian's and the stereotypes held namely people involved in farming are uneducated and cannot speak proper Bahasa Malaysia let alone English.  They also tend to look down on farmers so I have a great time surprising them.  I enjoy the social interaction and it gives me great satisfaction when I have resellers of my produce at the same market and when the customers themselves promote my produce to other customers.  It also enables me to get the most income from my produce
It is still a long road to when the farm turns a profit but I have faith that with perseverance and hard work with Allah s.w.t. blessing, the farm will succeed.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Farm Services: Development of Farms and fruit orchards

I love farming and in the last couple of years that I have been immersed in it, one thing that is clear is, as with anything else you do, you must have a passion for it.  It requires commitment and time, and of course money.  However, no matter how much money you have, if you do not have trusted people to work with you, many unnecessary challenges will be faced, often resulting in additional costs and in time, some people give up.  For farm to be in top form, producing quality produce, you must have the time to spend on it.  Around the Hulu Langat area, there are many properties that remain uncared for and turning into a jungle, mainly because the owners have no interest in it, have no time to spend on it, thinks that it is an investment which in the future they can sell and make a lot of money without putting any more effort till then, and a whole other multitude of what I consider wasteful or irresponsible excuses.
Owning a piece of land is a gift, a treasure and a blessing.  It is an opportunity provided to us and should not be squandered.  Options abound.  At the very least, if the owner is too lazy, then find someone and farm it out to them.  However, I feel, that once you really see it with your heart and mind, you will realize the treasure that it is and do something with it and not waste the opportunity.
As such, Suria Helang Lui is venturing into a new area - providing land developing and maintenance services to absentee or part-time dwellers land owners who are interested in developing their land in agriculture such as fruit orchards, weekend farm retreats or vegetable farms.  We develop a relationship with the land owners to understand what their aim and objective is and work towards achieving their dream and vision.
Currently, we are working on one project on a property, which at first glance, people mistakenly think that there is nothing much on it except for forest vegetation.  Within the Hulu Langat area, a major portion of the land has been explored first by the Orang Asli and later, in the early 1900s by Indonesians, mainly originating from Sumatera, namely Kerinci and Minang.  During the time where immigration laws were almost non-existent, people were more mobile.  Until today, there are strong family ties between Malaysian Kerinci and Minang with their families in Sumatera.  As a result of this ealier land development, in many areas you will find Durian, Jering, Kerdas and Petai trees.  Over the generations, with the lack of care on some of these properties, it has returned to a jungle with the aforementioned trees interspersed.  What a waste of opportunity as these trees produces popular items that Malaysians love and definitely have a commercial value.
If a land owner would love to have an agriculture-based property, I highly recommend that the first step taken, after the boundary has been determined, should be to perform a survey of the vegetation.  You may be surprised at what you find.  Unfortunately many land owners do not know one tree from another, some mistakenly identifying a durian tree as a regular wood tree due to the size.  Many people are familar with the propagated version of the durian tree that only lasts around 15 years and not aware that durian trees planted from seeds lasts for decades, hence growing to a great height with big trunks. 
Often people think the easiest and fastest way is just to bulldoze the land and re-plant.  This short-sighted approach often results in lost treasures such as these great fruit trees, great lumber as well as medicinal plants that are often found only in deep jungle, with all the ground razing being done.  With most land clearing, the bulldozer shoves everything on the ground, including the wonderful top-soil into a few piles, which later the owner will have to decide how to get rid of these unsightly hills.  Sometimes, when the land owner decides to build a house, this pile is flattened, causing decomposing organic matter to be mixed with the soil, forming the base of where the house is built.  It is no wonder that often these houses end-up with cracks, when their floor base is sinks or shifts due to the decomposing material.  Later, these same owners wonder why they have to fertilize their plants and trees so much.  Sometimes, I feel like saying "Duh!!!!!".
I view owning and developing a land as a trust, an inheritance to future generations as well as an obligation to preservation as much as possible.  In our quest for development, we have lost many unknown treasures and with each generation, knowledge.  Sometimes, we are so caught in modernization that we forget that many medications, albeit in its traditional form, originate from these plants and trees.  Take the Senduduk Hutan also known as Senduduk Putih.  It has a blood coagulation element within the juice of the leaves as well as the ability to draw out certain types of animal secretions that prevent coagulation of the blood such as the leech or pacat.  It also is used in many other ways.
Once a fruit orchard or farm getaway has been developed, it requires tender loving care to fulfill its maximum potential.  With many land owners busy schedule, regular maintenance is essential and these can be outsourced to outfits like us.  However, as with many relationships, this is a mutually-agreed relationship built on trust with a long-term view.
So, if you need our services, feel free to contact us via my mobile 019-365-1806 or through e-mail at

Building a personalized home - Part 2 : Dream bathroom

I consider the bathroom one of the important parts of the home.  It is one of the first areas we see in the morning and one of the last areas before we go to sleep at night.  It is also an area where cleanliness is a top priority.  At the same time, it can also be a great relaxation area.
My principle of all areas of the house is usage of natural light, easy to clean and maintain, comfortable and definitely easy on the eyes.  This same principle was applied to my bathroom.
Since this is a bathroom, I needed to ensure privacy from other eyes yet allow lot of natural light.  To accomplish this, the part of the roof over the bathroom has a 2'x2' skylight and the walls facing the exterior of the house has many glass cubes.  This allows for lots of light to enter while ensuring privacy.  The use of white tiles and the glass cubes keeps the bathroom bright and at the same time contribute to low maintenance and ease of cleaning.  At the same time, I wanted the walls to look "artistic" so I included the use of   brown-beige trowel stones, also an easy-care wall component.  by not using windows, I will not have to worry about window treatments such as blinds or curtains, which will add work to the maintenance.
I have the luxury of pure, clean water from a source up in the hills, with the added benefit that if I do not use it, I have to release it to the drains or my pipes can burst.  So, what does this give me?  It gives me the luxury of taking long showers and baths.  With good water pressure, I had a "rain" shower installed.  It feels so good to have a nice, cool shower after farm activities.  To complete my options, I will be installing a water heater so that I can have a warm shower for those cold early mornings.
I find it relaxing to hear running water like in a stream or river while having a bath hence a custom bath tub, complete with river rocks that the water can flow over, Nature's music.  I can have the illusion of  bathing in the rain by turning on the shower at the same time.  It also helps to have something beautiful to look at hence the tile, glass cubes and trowel stones on the wall.
Being custom-made, the other end of the bath tub is designed to accomodate comfortable placement of my head as I lie in the tub, complete with water streaming over my shoulders, offering a soft shoulder massage.
I have cleaned it up and started to enjoy my bathroom - absolutely wonderful, relaxation therapy.  Alhamdulillah.